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Debate: Censorship of gangsta rap

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Should government censor the lyrics of violent or expletive gangsta rap?

Background and context

There is an ongoing debate about the impact of music on certain listeners – especially music such as « gangsta » rap, with lyrics linked to violence and illegal acts. There is widespread disagreement, for example between the music industry and parents’ groups, about the effect such music has on young listeners, and their behaviour, i.e. does it encourage them to behave in a particular way?

Contents

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Crime: Does gangsta rap incite criminality?

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Yes

  • Gangsta rap encourages listeners to criminality: This is so on two levels. First, it sometimes uses language that actively incites crime, for example encouraging weapons use, spousal abuse or homophobic attacks. Secondly, it glorifies a lifestyle that is rich with imagery of criminality (e.g. gun use and drug dealing) and this sends out a subconscious but consistent message affirming criminality.
  • Gangsta rap is especially pernicious because it targets the youth. Gangsta rappers clearly seek to appeal to a receptive youthful audience, which is why so many of their images use young people and songs refer to events which would strike an especial chord with adolescents and young adults. This is irresponsible, as it represents an attempt by gangsta rappers to use their power to influence young people with a subversive, anti-societal message.
  • Gangsta rap is part of a long American tradition that glorifies violence. Contemporary music cannot be solely blamed for glorifying violence. Gangsta rap indicates the successful hegemonic hailing of young African-American artists, who have finally embraced and thus celebrate the very violent lifestyle that in principle was a part of slave-owning America. Slave ownership was a biased macho enterprise, consisting of the ownership and control of other human beings for personal profit. Similarly gangsta rap, ironically, upholds such principles, through its stress on macho violence, pimping (owning and profiting from female sex slaves or prostitution), drug dealing (relying on addicts/junkies, as slaves to drugs) and profiting off of others through criminal activity and through the creation of a corrupt criminal network.


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No

  • Gangsta rappers provide a positive role model for young people. They are self-made success stories who have often achieved considerable fame and wealth despite humble beginnings. Censoring them sends out a discouraging message to other young people who may see them as a form of inspiration to themselves to succeed in life.
  • Gangsta rap is a form of entertainment like any other: Some of its purveyors may use words or imagery that portrays certain criminal acts, but that is because they reflect the culture from which it spawned. Critics miss the subtleties of rap music, in which the rapper often takes on a particular persona in a song and so does not necessarily endorse the views or actions it portrays; rap fans are well aware of these ambiguities. Violence and criminality are also endemic in other forms of entertainment, for example opera and classic films often contain large-scale killing and violence. Trying to link gangsta rap to crime is singling it out amongst entertainment forms for political reasons. Would heavy metal, with its comparable content, be picked on instead if it were the music of a black urban underclass?
  • Gangsta rap is a commentary on how media portrays blacks. Gangsta rap is a way for artists to not only capitalize on such a stereotypical image, to profit from a media industry that was already exploiting African-American stereotypes, but also to turn such stereotype into camp and pastiche, a postmodern comment on the nature, reception, and circulation of media images. Gangsta rap gives into this persistent and overblown image of African-American males, but also goes a step further and intensifies the stereotype to ridiculous extremes, filling videos with over-muscled shirtless artists, profanity, a bevy of scantily clad and sexually available women, fetishized firearms, and an abundance of markers signifying American luxury (champagne, expensive cars, mansions, jewelry, and overspending).
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Stereotypes vs. reality: Does Gangster rap promote false stereotypes?

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Yes

  • Gangsta rap is corrosive because it affirms negative stereotypes. Much gangsta rap revolves around the affirmation of stereotypes, such as black violence and wife beating. It purports to be social realism but in fact conveys a very selective portrayal of life which reinforces already damaging social stereotypes, of groups who are often poorly placed to campaign successfully by themselves against such portrayal. It is therefore right for government to censor such negative stereotyping, as it often does when regulating e.g. race relations or criminal acts.


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No

  • Gangster rappers simply tell it how it is. Mostly it is a form of social realism which simply tells hard truths that many policymakers would rather pretend did not exist, not least because in part they reflect those policymakers’ own failures. Even where such affirmation is concentrated in such a way as to make it an unrealistic representation of everyday life, this is no worse than the same phenomenon in other forms of popular culture e.g. soap operas.


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Government legitimacy: Does government have legitimate authority to censor rap?

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Yes

  • The government has a moral legitimacy in censoring. People correctly look to the government as the public arbiter of common morals, for the wider social good. It is in line with this role, therefore, for the government to take such steps as it thinks necessary to protect the public morality. This may include censorship of things which are likely to cause moral harm, an approach often manifested in e.g. film classification schemes.


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No

  • Government censorship is a dangerous form of statist control. Even if one accepts the argument for some limited form of government censorship to protect public morals, this needs to be very precisely and conservatively defined to avoid the slippery slope towards creeping totalitarianism. Allowing censorship of popular culture on grounds that the lyrics are mildly subversive is unwelcome as it incorporates a very expansive view of the proper ambit of government regulation. This issue is properly the concern of parents, who should take more interest in, and responsibility for, the music (and films, TV, internet use) to which their children are exposed.


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Enforcement: Is the enforcement of a censorship of certain gangster rap sons feasible?

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Yes

  • Censorship could keep Gangsta rap away from most vulnerable. It would be an effective method of keeping gangsta rap out of the hands of the people who are most susceptible to suffering from its corrosive message. Those who would proactively go to some lengths to obtain the material through black market channels in the event of censorship are not the intended target for such a censorship to affect.


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No

  • It is difficult to enforce censorship on a national level: This is especially so because of the global nature of many parts of the music industry, including the cross-country appeal of artists and the international availability of media. Therefore, a ban e.g. on sale of uncensored media could possibly be circumvented by Internet-based file swapping.


See also

External links and resources

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